Situated beside the River Nore, charming medieval Kilkenny boasts a truly privileged location and is undoubtedly Ireland’s most attractive inland city. It is renowned for both its unique architectural style and vibrant cultural scene; the city is rightly proud of its heritage and hosts various festivals, including a major arts festival, a gourmet festival and the quite amazingly international Kilkenomics Comedy and Economic Festival. Not to mention the numerous fine restaurants, craft beer pubs and atmospheric old bars that fill the city, full of that famous Irish warmth and flair for hospitality. But it’s not just the location that’s attractive – the south-east of Ireland enjoys the warmest climate in the country so visitors might even enjoy alfresco drinking and dining in the summer months.
Kilkenny’s enviable location and (relatively) warm climate has always presented an attractive prospect for invaders and settlers. Historians have uncovered Neolithic tombs in the valley of the Bone for example, suggesting that nomadic tribes settled in what we now know as Kilkenny centuries before the early Christians arrived. Yet in the past Ireland’s isolation cut it off from many of the troubled events of European history. Roman regions, who controlled most of neighboring Britain never invaded and Kilkenny’s early history is therefore shrouded in myths of warring gods and heroic High Kings.
History records that Kilkenny began its life as a monastic settlement in the 6th century AD. A church was built to honor St. Canice – today known as St. Canice’s Cathedral – and the settlement rapidly grew in both size and religious importance. Indeed, the bellicose Celtic tribes were quick to embrace Christianity in the 6th century AD and by the 8th century Kilkenny was an important ecclesiastic power in the Leinster region.
During this period Kilkenny enjoyed an era of relative peace and across Ireland huge monasteries were founded, where scholarship and the arts flourished. However, in 795 the Vikings invaded Ireland and attacked many settlements, including Kilkenny, over the course of the next century. There were plenty of skirmishes between local tribes and the Nordic warriors, although the Vikings never succeeded in gaining full control of Ireland. In 1014 AD the Irish High King Brian Boru defeated the Viking King of Dublin and the Vikings’ presence was all but eliminated.
However, in 1169 the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland with greater ambitions than their Viking counterparts. Many Irish chiefs submitted to Henry II of England and his Anglo-Norman knights carved out large fiefdoms for themselves. After the invasion, the Anglo Knight Richard Strongbow established Kilkenny’s first castle and by the late thirteenth century, the settlement was completely under Anglo-Norman control.
Kilkenny thrived under English control and between the 13-14th centuries an unparalleled age of prosperity dawned upon the settlement. With its official status as the seat of the Lordship of Leinster, Kilkenny attracted a growing number of artists and traders who wished to share in this newfound prosperity. A new wealthy merchant class emerged and Kilkenny soon rose to the ranks of Ireland’s largest and most important inland town.
Sadly, this golden age of fortune was not to last. The Black Death arrived with vengeance in 1348 and killed many of the town’s residents. There were also several skirmishes between Gaelic forces and their overlords, although nothing approaching a serious rebellion. But in the 15th century many of Kilkenny’s buildings were improved or replaced, with new churches, town houses and abbey’s helping to engender a new era of prosperity.
In the 16th century a massive political shift swept through Ireland. In 1532 Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and the country became a battleground between Irish Catholics and English armies dispatched to crush resistance. Henry was declared King of Ireland in 1541 and began a campaign of discrimination against the resident Irish Catholics. However, in 1609 King James I of England and Ireland granted Kilkenny official status as a city – these were interesting and turbulent times indeed.
Kilkenny was at the center of a rebellion against English administrative rule in 1641, spearheaded by Irish Catholic nobles who were sick of the growing discrimination and ill-treatment from their Protestant rulers. This Confederation of Kilkenny was overthrown during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649, when Oliver Cromwell overthrew the English Monarch Charles I. Irish lands were confiscated and given to Protestants from England and Scotland. These were dark times indeed for the residents of Kilkenny and the city became something of a provincial backwater under Cromwellian rule.
However, the restoration of the King Charles II in 1660 and Cromwell’s death paved the way for a gradual Renaissance in the city’s fortunes. The successor to Charles II, his brother James II was crowned King following Charles’ death and favored a policy of religious tolerance towards Irish Catholics. He was the last Roman Catholic Monarch to rule Ireland and England, until he was deposed in the so called Glorious Revolution of 1688.
England’s conquest of Ireland was completed with William of Orange’s victory over James II in 1690, and his subsequent exile to France. During the final English Ascendancy, repressive penal laws denied Irish Catholics in Kilkenny the most basic freedoms, although small groups of rebellious Catholics continued to fight for their cause and opposition to English rule was never totally crushed.
In the 18th century Kilkenny once again found hope and prosperity as the industrial revolution swept through Ireland and completely changed the country’s economy. The city became a center of mining and manufacturing, with grand Georgian mansions constructed with the newfound wealth and several important buildings and improvements commissioned.
In contrast, the 19th century was a period marked by hardship, famine and political unrest. The famine of 1845-8 was a bleak period in the city’s history. Over two million people died across Ireland and many of Kilkenny’s residents were forced to emigrate. The period was also marked by Ireland’s campaign for home rule – The Treaty of 1921 divided the island in two. The south became the Irish Free State, gaining full independence in 1937. However, Kilkenny was largely unaffected by the 2nd World War as Ireland remained neutral through-out the conflict.
But despite its hardships, Kilkenny is today a quintessential 21st century Irish city: dynamic, friendly and full of optimism. It has managed to preserve the best elements of both ancient and contemporary Ireland, with a dynamic modern economy, cultural scene and nightlife. At the same time, traditional culture is in no danger of being eroded. Its inhabitants have a genuine love of legends, literature and songs, with festivals playing an important part in community life. Just head to one of the city’s charming pubs and take part in an impromptu music session – a reminder of the vibrant and exuberant spirit that underpins this great city today.
Gastronomy & Wine
Whether you are dining in exclusive luxury or a modest local pub, one thing you can be certain of in Ireland is that you will receive a warm welcome. Irish hospitality is legendary and is one of the main draws for tourists visiting this beautiful country. Moreover, thanks to Ireland’s abundance of high-quality seafood, artisan cheese (our fave local cheese is Knockdrinna), craft ciders and beers not to mention great whiskey, Irish cooking now ranks among the best in Europe; visitors can no longer proclaim that Ireland is a culinary graveyard!
Eating out in Ireland has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. Traditional Irish cooking revolved around rustic, filling dishes such as Irish stew, Colcannon, Beef and Guinness pie, hardly on par with gourmet paradise. But this now represents a wafer thing slice of a much larger pie; a surfeit of innovative, younger chefs, working with small boutique food producers and organic farmers have completely transformed Ireland’s food scene.
Today, the hungry visitor can expect to encounter a superlative range of dishes produced from local ingredients, including: fresh oysters, scallops, mussels, venison, sea vegetable and much more. Modern Irish cuisine tends to be influenced by classical European culinary techniques that are applied to delicious local produce with spectacular effect. Seafood is a constant highlight, as is Irish beef and game when in season.
Kilkenny now has a varied range of restaurants to cater to every budget and desire, everything from cafés to gourmet destinations. One of our favorites is Langton’s Restaurant and Bar on John Street. They serve exquisite fresh fish and traditional dishes in an ornate dining room. Stuffed mussels are among local favorites. For excellent Italian cooking try Rinuccini near Kilkenny castle – the pasta is to die for. Campagne made some waves as the town’s first restaurant to gain a Michelin star as well. And out of town, Mount Juliet’s restaurant is graceful and really lovely.
Ireland has no tradition of vine cultivation and consequently don’t expect to sample too many local vintages! However, most restaurants boast a good wine list and plenty of imported wines are available. But what Kilkenny does have is plenty of craft beer options, the city has a long and proud history as a hub of craft brewing in Ireland. O’Hara’s Brewery Corner is now an institution! Irish whiskey is another highlight – try Redbreast 15-year-old Malt Whiskey. There is also a brewery museum for Kilkenny beer in the city and they do a fun tour.
Built in the 1190’s, Kilkenny Castle was the seat of the Anglo-Norman Butler family from the late 14th century up until 1967. With its drum towers and solid walls, the castle retains its medieval form, but has undergone many alternations over the years. Today it is Kilkenny’s biggest tourist draw and a must-visit attraction. A major highlight is the Long Gallery, which was rebuilt in the 1820’s to house the Butler art collection. It boasts a striking hammer beam and glass roof. The painted ceiling also merits a mention, with motifs inspired by the book of Kells.
Kilkenny’s so called Irishtown district is dominated by the spectacular St. Canice’s Cathedral and its round tower than many visitors ascend for unparalleled views of the city. The Gothic Cathedral dates back from the 13th century and is surely one of Ireland’s most fascinating religious buildings. It boasts a fine sculpted west door and array of 16th century tombs with striking effigies of the Butler family in the south transept.
Less than a 1 hour drive away from Kilkenny, Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city and definitely merits a day trip. It was founded by the Vikings in 914, and later occupied and improved upon by the Anglo-Normans. It is a small city that reeks of history; its commanding position on the Suir estuary made it southeast Ireland’s main port. Highlights include the remains of the Norman city walls and Christchurch Cathedral, designed by local architect John Roberts in the 1770’s.